It was only a few weeks before the commemoration of the visit of King George V to Etaples-sur-Mer that a lucky meeting in Unley, a middle-class suburb of Adelaide in South Australia, led to one of the most symbolic events illustrating the friendship history between France and Australia…
First planted at Creswell Gardens, Adelaide, SA on August 29, 1914, the English Oak was the first memorial tree to be planted to mark the commencement of what would become the First World War.
Since 2009, an urban forest advocacy collective, Treenet, has been collecting acorns from the War Memorial Oak with the aim of producing the Tree’s offspring to be planted in new or restored Avenues of Honour in Australia and France.
In 2019, in view of paying tribute to the many Australian soldiers who fell during the battle of Pozières in Northern France- many of whom actually came from Unley- Treenet donated 50 acorns collected directly under the War Memorial Oak and entrusted them to Pépinières de France for their propagation.
Whilst the municipality of Pozières had initially agreed to welcome the Oaks, a change in local leadership led to a shift in priorities, and the project was later abandoned.
The trees, which had grown to almost 2 metres by this point, were destined for compost due to Treenet’s lack of adequate funding.
However, a chanced meeting between John MacColl and Mrs. Florence Masters (a french culture project manager in Unley), led to every effort in saving the oaks for their propagation. After discovering that some 464 Australian soldiers happened to be buried in Etaples-sur-Mer, the pair reached out to local Pozières resident, Yves Potard, who was busy organising the centenary commemoration of George V’s visit. It was set to take place on May 14 at the Etaples military cemetery. The centenary would welcome many international ambassadors, dignitaries, and members of the royal family, including Princess Anne of England- the granddaughter of King George V.
Given the historical significance of both the trees and of this site for Australia’s soldiers, Mr. Potard agreed to have one of the 50 trees planted at the event. And, as the Australian ambassador to France Gillian Bird had already confirmed her attendance, she was the perfect candidate to plant the first baby Oak.
These Oak trees, living symbols of the soldiers who died so far from their native lands, will serve as an eternal symbol of their sacrifices.
The other 49 Oaks will be planted not far from the first: on the edge of the Etaples necropolis. It will serve as the subject of an educational project with local primary schools, planned and overseen by a local history teacher, Monsieur Baillet.
The Treenet association intends to make this donation part of a long-term relationship with the municipality of Etaples to ensure that the historical significance of these oaks is shared with future generations.
For more information on the projects carried out by Treenet , or to find out how you can support the association, head to the following site: https://treenet.org/about-us/avenues-of-honour/ .
Le Courrier Australien recognises that the saving of the trees and the subsequent realisation of this project would not have been made possible without the dedication and consistent efforts by the following people:
John MacColl (who intervened in the saving of the trees and coordinated all necessary correspondence for the project to go ahead), Florence Masters/Berthet (Space Downunder, Unley Council), David Lawry and Dr. Tim Johnson (members of Treenet), Glenn Williams (Avenues of Honour) Michael Rabbit (Unley Council), SE Mrs. Gillian Bird (the honourable Australian Ambassador to Paris), Phillipe Fait (mayor of Etaples-sur-Mer), Sebastien Baillet (historian and deputy mayor of Etaples-sur-Mer), and of course, Yves Potard, for playing an instrumental role in gaining Mr. Fait’s approval for the project to be realised.